✯ 9/11 memorial
✯ Within walking distance of James Comey’s former high school
If you enter Allendale, New Jersey, into Google Maps, you’ll find yourself at Crestwood Lake, which is no lake in the off-season, only a pit dug into soft dirt. Every summer it fills with water, chlorine, and children. Here is where I learned to swim in the ’80s, dog-paddling my way to the four-foot dock, blowing bubbles underwater, playing Marco Polo by the ropes and poles that separated the wading area from the deeper water. My friend Heather drew sunscreen hearts on her thighs around the initials of her crush, leaving perfect pale stencils in the middle of blaring sunburn. I never wore sunscreen, because I never burned.
In spring the lake is a crater, surrounded by a park and playground. Allendale’s high school and elementary school are a few blocks away in one direction, its post office, pizzerias, and grocery store several blocks in the other. Behind a strip mall, you can catch the train to New York City, twenty miles away—fifty minutes by train, thirty by car, depending on traffic. On weekdays the commuter lot is full. Across the street is a bar and grill that Giants and Yankees players, the town’s most prominent residents, have been known to frequent. Downtown is deserted by nightfall.
One hundred years ago, this was a weekend destination for rich New Yorkers. In the late 1920s, local developers bought the land where the lake is now, intending to build residential homes. Then the Depression hit, so they turned it into a park and charged the public to come and swim there. In 1971, with the population booming from urban exodus, the town snapped up the lake and its surrounding acres to preserve them for recreational use. New homes sprang up; excess farmland was sculpted into cul-de-sacs and split-levels.
If you follow the path past the shuttered snack stand (King Cones, Chipwiches, Fun Dip, Pixy Stix full of dyed sugar), you will arrive at the playground, with its shiny, primary-colored equipment, its curved and smoothed edges (remember the plywood-and-tires contraption, how its ridges dug into your bare knees; the slide where the boy fell and broke his arm). Today there’s a structure painted to look like a fire truck: Allendale Fire and Rescue, it reads.
Local kids valorize cops and firefighters. The town values tradition, the hazy American kind, and yearns for an idealized, bygone time that never truly existed, or existed only for a select few. The lake is a real estate selling point, a draw for upwardly mobile suburbanites picturing family Saturdays, picnics, barbecues. On the Fourth of July there are fireworks, and a band playing Sousa marches in red-white-and-blue bowties. There are sack races. Tossing games for the whole family: rolling pins for moms, horseshoes for dads, water balloons for kids.
At two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in late March, however, nobody is at the picnic tables or swing sets. Slabs of scum used to float on the surface of the water from all those kids pissing. You’d plunge off the high dive, holding your breath, and emerge, sputtering, head breaking through a kombucha-esque spread of bacterial slime, cursing as the muck dripped into your hair and eyes. Your friends would howl until it happened to them. You’d scrub extra hard in the shower at night.
Not much has changed here since I left, twenty-five years ago. Mornings, the commuters still ride into the city and return at night to the illusion of safety. There’s a Rockwellian vibe—Jersey-style—and the only chain store is Dunkin’ Donuts. The town’s nearly seven thousand residents are 84 percent white—when I was growing up, it was 98—and most of its voters are registered Republicans. The most famous Allendale native may be James Comey, who graduated from the town’s high school sixteen years before I did. Comey said being held up at gunpoint as a teenager in Allendale informed his FBI career. A man known as the Ramsey Rapist broke into the Comey house and locked him and his brother in the bathroom while he searched for their sister, who wasn’t there. The brothers escaped and the man fled into the woods. Decades later, when I was in junior high, kids still spoke about the Ramsey Rapist. He was never caught.
On a recent visit, I saw Asian American kids hanging out, a whole group of them, outside the Dunkin’, and in 2016 the votes were evenly split between Trump and Clinton. The population has grown, though not by much. The larger world always manages to intrude. But some things never seem to change: when I was in high school I was called a communist and told to go back to where I came from for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Now when high-school students attend a protest against gun violence, the principal threatens to suspend them.
I walk away from the parking lot of Crestwood Park and down the curved road. In the red barn, day-campers made lanyards (not me); on the tennis court they played doubles (not my family). Behind the barn is a 9/11 memorial. There’s a granite monument, an American flag, an eagle statue, and a damaged steel beam that was once part of the World Trade Center. One Allendale resident died on 9/11, but many others were affected by the proximity of the event, including my father, an old-school techie and Chinese Filipino immigrant who commuted from Allendale to Manhattan for over twenty years, working with systems and networks at the New York Telephone Company. That morning he was in the Verizon building, right next to Ground Zero. The building was severely damaged, but he managed to escape and return to New Jersey by ferry. He took early retirement.
The memorial was dedicated in 2013, but there’s a ceremony each year. After some prodding by my mother, my father decided to attend for the first time last year, watching a group of high schoolers, born post-9/11, read a timeline of the day’s events. He says he’s glad he went. When I ask if he wants to go to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, he says no. It’s weird enough for him that a luxury mall has been built on the former site of the World Trade Center. “I saw people holding hands and jumping from the towers that day,” he tells me, shaking his head. “I don’t need to go there.”
I peek past the memorial’s stone perimeter and spy a brook beneath, still flowing, the water only slightly green. It stuns me. Where does it go? The water trickles and bubbles, asserts itself under the townhouses, the strip-mall bagel shops and pizzerias, the ShopRite. The water races past the Paramus malls and Route 17 box stores, the old Kmart, the old Caldor. Past the Hooters, the Dunkin’, the Home Depot, the commuter traffic, gunning for the wilderness of west Jersey.